By Larry Gordon
When Dr. Joe Frager calls and says that he wants us to meet him for dinner in the city, there’s no need to probe too deeply into the reason. Frager is a busy medical doctor who utilizes all his time outside of his office to advance the cause of Israel and enhance the security of the Jewish state.
I kid Joe every now and then about the difficulty of running the state of Israel from the borough of Queens, but in reality it’s close enough to JFK Airport so that he can hop over to the Middle East on literally a few moments’ notice. Amongst the things that I admire about the 57-year-old physician is his remarkable vision and seemingly endless energy.
So just before Sukkos, we met in the city with two government officials from Bulgaria who were in New York during the week that the United Nations General Assembly held its annual sessions.
Joe Frager has been to Israel with former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, he helped to arrange the summer 2011 Glenn Beck extravaganza, and, most recently, this past summer he accompanied congressional candidate Dan Halloran on a three-day trip to Israel. So when Joe said that he wanted us to meet Bulgarian officials, I almost immediately agreed but still had to ask, why Bulgaria? Well, the reason is a combination of the simple and the complicated, I suppose as most international relationships with overlapping interests and agendas are wont to be.
We were meeting with two members of the Bulgarian parliament, one of them being the chairman of the Order, Law, and Justice Party, Yane Yanev. Now Mr. Yanev does not speak any English, so he is accompanied by an interpreter. It is a little difficult to adjust to the cadence or the flow of the conversation. We talk as usual, and then wait for the interpreter to repeat what we said in English to Mr. Yanev and his colleague. They respond in Bulgarian and then we wait for the man doing the translating to relate to us Yanev’s response in English.
After a few minutes, I guess you do get used to the tempo of the exchanges. One of the advantages of meeting with people who do not speak the same language as you is that you can speak freely amongst yourselves about what subjects you would like to discuss.
The common interest that we have, and the personality that brought us and the Bulgarians together, was congressional candidate and current New York City Councilmember Dan Halloran. Halloran, whom I met for the first time only a few months ago, is quite an involved and charismatic personality. He’s running as the Republican candidate in what is stacking up to be a very close race against New York State Assemblywoman Grace Meng.
The redesigned district is a traditionally Democratic area that was represented in Congress by Gary Ackerman for over 30 years. The district is an interesting ethnic mix that winds its way through several very heavily Jewish areas. The Jews in the area, who generally lean to the right on issues like Israel and the U.S. economy, have a mysterious proclivity to consistently vote in personalities, like Mr. Ackerman, who traditionally lean to the left on these very same issues.
There seems to hopefully be a change in the air this time around. No question that Halloran is the underdog in the race. But in the aftermath of the first Obama-Romney debate and the follow-up with the Biden-Ryan discussion the other night, the momentum seems to have swung in a Republican direction. The challenge now is to maintain that momentum and get the job done. The polls may not reflect it yet, but we may be looking at an important and perhaps even sweeping Republican victory on November 6.
The point for our purposes here today is that Mr. Halloran and the Bulgarian members of parliament know one another from other forums they have participated in over the last several years. They share common interests in terms of their agendas for their very divergent constituencies in their respective countries. On this evening, as Dr. Frager, my wife, Esta, and I sit there, we know that the parties have an even stronger and more overriding concern that they want to share with us and discuss—and that is their very committed and strong support for Israel.
So as an aside, I ask Joe why it is so important, with Israel being so much in the news and commanding such an inordinate amount of international attention in such a troubled world, that we take time to meet with Mr. Yanev and his Bulgarian colleagues. And Dr. Frager states it simply and to the point—Israel needs all the friends in the world it can get and with whom it can cultivate relationships. And—tonight, anyway—we are those ambassadors of good relations.
Top priority in our conversation that night was this summer’s terrorist attack in the city of Burgas that killed five vacationing Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver and injured dozens of others. Mr. Yanev offered his condolences to us and expressed how much he regretted what had happened. He reported that while the terrorist attack was still under investigation, there have not been any arrests made in the case. It could be that part of the reason for the meeting was that Mr. Yanev was seeking to smooth over some of the negative feelings that still might remain as a result of this past summer’s events and the impact it may have on tourism.
Not that Bulgaria is necessarily on top of anyone’s list today or perhaps even anytime in the past, but I understand from Mr. Halloran and others that the country features some beautiful areas and enjoyable resorts.
And one thing for sure emerges from this encounter, and that is that Mr. Yanev is a very good and valued friend of the State of Israel. Here are some of the things that I culled from our discussion over dinner that night. Mr. Yanev is on very good terms with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He detests the Left in Israel and is extremely suspicious of the motives of the Palestinians. He also does not care much for President Barack Obama and is hoping—he says looking forward to—a victory for Mitt Romney next month. And yes, he believes that it is vital that Dan Halloran be elected to Congress from his Queens district.
So what is the nature of Mr. Yanev’s political power and influence in Bulgaria these days? The Bulgarian parliament consists of 240 seats. Today the ruling party of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov controls 117 of those seats. Members of Mr. Yanev’s OLJ party hold 11 seats. He says that the prime minister looks to him frequently to help pass legislation and make policy.
Bulgaria is a member state of the European Union, a body in which Israel is frequently criticized and vilified and one in which, Dr. Frager says, Israel can use all the friends it can find. So we break bread and share some kosher wine with the Bulgarians. We order steaks and everyone seems to be enjoying the meal—except the interpreter. He is unable to eat anything because he is simply busy talking to one side or the other.
Asked how he liked the steak—we were at The Prime Grill in Manhattan—he said that it was excellent but that we have to visit Bulgaria, where he has a 1,000-acre cattle farm. He extended an invitation to us to visit as his guest and he promised to have some very fresh meat prepared for us. We explained to Mr. Yanev that it’s not so simple, and that if we were to take him up on his offer we would have to bring a rabbi that was a ritual slaughterer with us to ensure that the meat was kosher.
The translator interpreted what we were saying but I had a feeling none of them really understood what we were talking about. While we were sitting at dinner, I checked online for rabbis in Bulgaria. There are two, one in the capital city, Sofia, and the other in Varna. Both are Chabad emissaries. I showed the names to Mr. Yanev and he responded that he thought he knows one of them.
Today, Bulgaria is home to about 6,000 Jews, which I suppose explains the presence of the two Chabad rabbis. Bulgaria’s history with its Jews is a favorable but complicated one. During World War II, Bulgaria was aligned with Nazi Germany but refused to deport its Jews as directed by the Nazis. Mr. Yanev is today proud of that historically bold stance, as I’m sure other Bulgarian officials are. Bulgaria once had as many as 50,000 Jews living in the country. After 1948 and the founding of the Jewish state, most moved to Israel.
It was a great meeting and a wonderful dinner. We made some new friends and received invitations to visit Sofia. But the important thing that I believe we accomplished is that we—just a few Jews in New York—demonstrated our appreciation of past as well as future Bulgarian support for the State of Israel.
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